A secretive Silicon Valley tech giant set up shop in Canada. But what does it do?
It’s one of the most valuable and secretive technology companies in Silicon Valley: Palantir Technologies, a developer of data mining software used by spies, banks and some of the biggest companies in the world.
The company was co-founded in 2004 by billionaire Peter Thiel — previously the co-founder of PayPal — and now an adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump.
Financial institutions are said to use Palantir’s software to detect fraud and cyberattacks, while pharmaceutical researchers have been sold on its potential to more speedily discover new drugs. Hershey says Palantir has helped it sell more chocolate. The CIA and FBI are reported to have used it to track terrorists, criminals, and more.
Palantir has spent the past few years trying to move beyond lucrative government contracts into the private sector, as it builds toward a long-awaited IPO. And by the company’s own account, Canada is an important part of those plans — “a major player in our global operations,” according to a testimonial on Palantir’s website.
But for all its stated importance, little is known about what, exactly, Palantir does here.
The company is conspicuously absent from public records that list government lobbyists, contracts, and bids, and declined a request for an interview with CBC News. But what few documents and social media postings do exist suggest Palantir counts Canada’s federal government and Calgary Police among its customers.
‘It’s like plugging into the Matrix’
Palantir describes itself as “one of the fastest-growing and most successful companies in Silicon Valley,” but it has myriad global outposts, too. Since 2013, Palantir has had an office in Ottawa — LinkedIn identifies at least five employees — and has touted a second office in Toronto as coming “soon” since at least late 2015.
An employee testimonial on Palantir’s website describes its Canadian clients as “some of the most interesting and important organizations in the country.” But Palantir — which has raised more than $2 billion US from investors, including CIA’s investment arm In-Q-Tel, and was worth an estimated $20 billion US in 2015 — is notoriously tight-lipped about its work.
Named after the seeing stones from Lord of the Rings which are used to watch over the realm of Middle Earth, Palantir’s speciality is big data analysis — combining, combing through, and visualizing vast amounts of data from myriad sources of company data, and finding signals in all the noise.
“It’s like plugging into the Matrix,” remarked an anonymous U.S. Special Forces to Bloomberg in a 2011 story.
Such comments have only fuelled the perception that the company’s software is helping companies and governments infringe on people’s privacy — a perception the company has tried to counter by touting its strict access controls and humanitarian work.
Media reports suggest that typical Palantir contracts run in the millions of dollars — upwards of $100 million in some cases. Chief executive and co-founder Alex Karp told the Wall Street Journal in an interview last year that his company would have 20 contracts worth more than $100 million in 2016 — $2 billion in all — while a Politico story that same year reported the company had landed $1.2 billion in U.S. federal government business alone.
In Canada, however, there is only one recorded meeting that CBC News could find between Palantir and government officials: a 2014 trip to California, where then-Foreign Affairs minister John Baird met Thiel, described by a government press release as “one of the most successful and influential entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley.”
Top Secret clearance sought
Palantir’s history in Canada dates back to at least 2010, when the company counted a digital research and consultancy firm called SecDev as one of its partners.
SecDev — which, in partnership with Citizen Lab, had used Palantir’s software in widely publicized research on Chinese spying — effectively helped Palantir market itself in Canada over the next few years, co-founder Rafal Rohozinski told CBC News in an interview, demonstrating the software’s capabilities for potential clients.
By 2013, the relationship had fizzled, however, and Palantir opened its first Canadian office. On LinkedIn, one Palantir employee describes being hired in February of that year as part of the Ottawa office’s founding team, where they “managed business relations, including multimillion-dollar contracts with government agencies.”
An April 2017 job posting from a recruiter on LinkedIn suggests the federal government is a client — or at the very least, has contracts with a company that uses Palantir on its behalf. It purports to be looking for candidates with Palantir experience and top secret clearance for a role “supporting Canadian Government.”
And at least two LinkedIn users explicitly mention using Palantir’s software as part of their duties at Public Safety Canada. “Managed the integration of all existing data sources … into systems such as Palantir” writes one former employee under the “Experience” section of his profile.
Other government employees list Palantir software among their skills — with endorsements from government colleagues. Another government employee left Public Safety Canada after an almost 15-year career in government to join Palantir in 2015.
Tool to ‘reduce and prevent crime’
Public records also show that Calgary police have used the company’s analytics software since 2013. Former Calgary Police chief Rick Hanson described his force’s use of “intelligence-led software” from Palantir in a hearing before the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security that same year.
“It does an amazing job of not only accessing instantaneously your vast pools of data but analyzing the data,” Hanson said. “It’s going to save not only resources on analysts’ time, but it will also allow our officers to do a better job on investigations.”
A 2014 report indicates that Calgary used Palantir to integrate at least eight of its databases, allowing Calgary Police to “see its information completely differently, in a way that unearths opportunities to reduce and prevent crime.”
Calgary Police had yet to respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Spies stay silent
Documents previously obtained by The Intercept suggest that Palantir is also used by intelligence agencies GCHQ in the U.K. and Australia’s Defence Signals Directorate, in addition to the NSA. Naturally, there is suspicion that if Palantir’s software is used by Canada’s closest partners in the intelligence community, it may be used by Canadian spies too.
CSIS, CSE, and the RCMP would neither confirm nor deny the use or purchase of Palantir software.
National Defence spokesperson Ashley Lemire wrote in an email: “DND has not purchased any Palantir software and has no contracts or records/licensing/media from the company Palantir Technologies or their two software suites.”
Public Safety Canada provided a similar response.
“The Palantir software is not used at Public Safety, nor is it a part of our approved software list,” wrote spokesperson Jean-Philippe Levert in three separate emails. “We do not have at this time, nor have previously had, a contract with Palantir.”
Levert refused to address why two former Public Safety employees would claim to have used software that the department says it does not use.